Detox Diets Are All the Rage. But Do They Work?

A dietitian sets the record straight.

You’ve probably just spent the last month (or more!) downing heaps of holiday ham, glasses of egg nog, and sooooo many gingerbread cookies. You may feel bloated and all carbed out, with your treadmill taunting you from under a pile of semi-clean clothes.

But with a new year comes new opportunities for a clean slate. If you’ve considered a detox diet to jump-start a healthy eating plan, you’re in good company. “People are looking to start fresh and to cleanse their bodies from all the holiday eating,” says Nina Eng, chief clinical dietitian for Northwell Health’s Plainview Hospital. So it’s not surprising that detox diets are in vogue now—and the payoff sounds promising: Flush the toxins from your system and you’ll be left with more energy, a better functioning immune system and even weight loss. But it is not that simple …

What are toxins?

The word “toxins” is bandied about frequently when it comes to detoxification. To clarify, “Toxins are poisons—in this case molecules that need to be removed from the body,” explains Eng. They fall into two main categories: Endotoxins are produced inside the body as a result of your day-to-day metabolism, while exotoxins come from the environment and get into your body through breathing, eating, drinking, or skin absorption.

Each person’s ability to detoxify varies, based on dozens of different factors, including things like diet, lifestyle, health status, and genetic factors. However, most human bodies come standard with their own built-in detoxification system. “We have an efficient liver and efficient kidneys that help us eliminate toxins,” says Eng.

But you may feel your liver and kidneys could use a little help, especially after a gluttonous holiday season. Should you give detox diets a whirl? Probably not, says Eng. Why? Here are issues with some trending diets:

  • Lemon water cleanse
    Subsisting on a diet of only water mixed with lemon, cayenne pepper, and other spices is a terrible type of detox, says Eng. “It’s not safe, it’s not sustainable, it’s deficient in calories and nutrients and it puts your body into a state of starvation, so you’ll actually conserve calories,” she says. In other words, your metabolism will slow down.  Pass.
  • Juice cleanse
    Vegetable and fruit juices sound healthy, but the lack of fiber, protein, and even fat is a problem, says Eng. When you juice, you’re losing the fiber, which is one of the main components that makes vegetables and fruit so healthy. Additionally, without any protein, fiber, or fat in your meal plan, you’re getting a rush of natural sugars with nothing to stabilize it. “Your blood sugar will spike, then dip, leaving you on a hunger roller coaster all day,” says Eng.
  • Colon cleanse
    This cleanse introduces large amounts of warm water into the colon through the rectum. Unpleasant—and dangerous as well. “You could become dehydrated and throw off your balance of sodium, potassium, and electrolytes,” Eng explains. You could also introduce unhealthy bacteria into your digestive system through the enema, inflame your bowel, and remove healthy bacteria because you’re excreting so much. This is definitely one to skip.
  • Raw foods cleanse
    For the most part, this detox isn’t awful. It’s based around eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains, so you’re getting a lot of fiber, which is great to get your gut in working shape, says Eng. And the less processed food you eat, the better. However, this detox doesn’t include meat, so if you’re not getting enough nuts and seeds you could be low in protein and other essential nutrients.

A wholesome detox

It’s always a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before you start any new eating plan. A detox can be dangerous for some people, including those with diabetes, anyone with an eating disorder, growing children, teens, pregnant women, and older adults, since many cleanses use laxatives which can cause diarrhea and lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

If you do want to try a detox for two to three days and have gotten the go-ahead from your healthcare provider, you can do it in a healthful way. A good detox keeps you from putting toxins into your body and increases nutrients to support its natural detoxification process. You don’t have to follow any strict rules or forbid any foods, says Eng. A healthy detox looks very similar to an overall healthy eating plan. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Hydrate heartily
    Drinking enough water is one of the best ways to help cleanse your system. Water helps you feel full so you’ll crave less junk. It also helps food flow more smoothly through the gut and thwarts constipation. Make sure to drink at least six to eight glasses of water a day. Drink before and during every meal and have another glass with every snack, keep a jug nearby, and add plenty of water-rich foods into your diet, like grapefruit, watermelon, lettuce, cucumbers, and zucchini.
  • Focus on fiber
    Fiber passes through the gut undigested, increasing the size of and softening the stool, making it easier to pass. So instead of toxins sitting idle in your digestive tract, they move through and out more readily. Foods with more fiber also tend to be more filling, so you’re less likely to eat the processed junk that mucks up your system. Eat five to nine servings of vegetables and fruit, three to five servings of whole grains, and at least some legumes, beans, nuts, and seeds every day.
  • Increase cleansing cuisine
    The liver, kidneys, gut, lymphatic system, and skin, along with hundreds of enzymes, work in synergy to purge unwanted waste products from the body. Certain foods can help this complex process run more efficiently and support detoxification pathways. They include cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower), berries, artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks, turmeric and milk thistle, and green tea.
  • Pump up the glutathione
    Glutathione is an amino acid that binds to toxins while in the liver and helps the body eliminate them. It’s so critical to the detox process that some consider it the body’s master detoxification enzyme. So make sure you’re putting foods rich in selenium (oats, Brazil nuts, walnuts, legumes, tuna, beef, poultry, cheese, and eggs), alpha lipoic acid (spinach, tomatoes, peas, Brussels sprouts), and lots of fruits and veggies on your plate.
  • Feast on fermented foods
    Naturally fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut can add beneficial bacteria into the gut and help manage the toxins that take up residence there. If these foods don’t appeal to you, a high-quality probiotic is another good option.
  • Consider a multivitamin
    While you should never rely on supplements as a substitute for a healthy diet, a good multivitamin/mineral supplement can fill any shortfalls you may have. A supplement can act as an insurance policy to make sure you have all the vitamins and minerals your body’s detoxification process needs to function at full speed.

What a detoxing day looks like

Here’s a sample healthy day of detoxifying foods according to Eng:  

8 – 10 glasses of water throughout the day

1 multivitamin

Breakfast: Breakfast frittata made with 1 whole egg and 2 egg whites, onions, garlic, leeks, green and red peppers. One-half cup berries. One slice whole wheat toast, plain. Green tea

Snack: One-half cup plain low- or no-fat yogurt or kefir sprinkled with 1/8 cup mix of almonds and sesame seeds.

Lunch: Salad made with unlimited dark leafy green lettuce, watercress, cabbage, kale, radishes, cucumbers, artichokes, 1/8 cup walnuts, ½ avocado, 3 - 4 oz of sliced grilled chicken. Green tea

Snack: Unlimited raw broccoli and 1 small sliced apple with horseradish dip (1/4 cup plain, low- or no-fat yogurt, horseradish and lemon, to taste)

Dinner: 3-4 ounces steak and kimchi (you can find prepared kimchi at most grocery stores). One-half cup brown rice seasoned with garlic, onions, and leeks, ¼ cup steamed cauliflower. Green tea  

Snack: ¼ cup watermelon cubes

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